Posts Tagged ‘smell’

Museum of Aromas

Photo: Matija Strlic
Professor Matija Strlic smells a historical book in the National Archives of the Netherlands as part of a quest to archive the scents of Old Europe. Ours not to reason why.

Don’t you love how many vocations and avocations there are in the world? Endless. People seem to keep thinking up new ones. They get interested in some obscure subject, and before you know it, they’re off to the races!

For example, as Nicola Davis writes at the Guardian, there are scientists trying to recreate the scents of Old Europe, from plague repellents to early tobacco.

“Smells can transport us to days gone by,” she notes. “Now researchers are hoping to harness the [smells] of the past to do just that.

“Scientists, historians and experts in artificial intelligence across the UK and Europe have announced they are teaming up for a €2.8m project labelled ‘Odeuropa’ to identify and even recreate the aromas that would have assailed noses between the 16th and early 20th centuries.

“ ‘Once you start looking at printed texts published in Europe since 1500 you will find loads of references to smell, from religious scents – like the smell of incense – through to things like tobacco,’ said Dr William Tullett of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, a member of the Odeuropa team and the author of Smell in Eighteenth-Century England.

“The first step in the three-year project, which is due to begin in January, will be to develop artificial intelligence to screen historical texts in seven languages for descriptions of odours – and their context – as well as to spot aromatic items within images, such as paintings.

“That information will be used to develop an online encyclopaedia of European smells, including potted biographies of particular odours, together with insights into the emotions and places associated with certain scents.

“ ‘It will [also] include discussions of particular types of noses from the past – the kinds of people for whom smell was significant and what smell meant to them,’ said Tullett, adding that one example would be physicians.

“ ‘That could take us into all kinds of different scents, whether that is the use of herbs like rosemary to protect against plague, [or] the use of smelling salts in the 18th and 19th centuries as an antidote to fits and fainting,’ he said.

“Tullett added that a key part of the project is to highlight how the meanings and uses of different smells have changed over time, something that shows in the history of tobacco. …

“The team say they plan to use their findings to work with chemists and perfumers to recreate the smells of the past, and explore how the odours can be delivered – alongside insights into their significance – to enhance the experience of visitors to museums and other heritage sites.

“The team is not the first to engage the nostrils in the name of heritage – the Jorvik Viking Centre in York is famous for recreating the stench of the 10th century, a feature some have suggested makes a visit particularly memorable.

“ ‘One of the things that the Jorvik Viking Centre demonstrates is that smell can have a real impact on the way people engage with museums,’ said Tullett. But, he said, such engagement does not have to rely on unpleasant pongs.

“ ‘Where smell does get mentioned in museums, it is often the smells of toilets or wood burning,’ said Tullett. ‘We are trying to encourage people to consider both the foul and the fragrant elements of Europe’s olfactory past.’ ” More at the Guardian, here.

I guess there’ll always be an England.

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There are no limits to human ingenuity. Jordan Todorov writes at Atlas Obscura, for example, about an “olfactory artist” who has been working to recreate the scents of cities for more than a decade. And why not?

” ‘Berlin smells of cigars and boiled cabbage.’ This observation comes from the 1963 travelogue Thrilling Cities by the British author Ian Fleming … But for Berlin-based olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas, who creates ‘smellscapes’ of major cities, it smells like so much more.

“ ‘Every city has an identity like we humans do. And every city is unique smell-wise,’ explains Tolaas, a half-Norwegian, half-Icelandic expatriate artist with background in chemistry, linguistics, mathematics, and visual arts. ‘The odor depends on things like climate, geography, demography etc. Inside the city, smells differs from neighborhood to neighborhood.’ …

“Tolaas is traveling around the world and mapping its cities, one smell at a time. The project, called SmellScapes, has taken her to 35 cities so far, from London and Paris to Cape Town to Kansas City (both of them).

“Tolaas started working on her SmellScapes more than a decade ago. Most of them are commissioned by either creative platforms, city councils, or universities and private foundations, and they serve an amazingly wide variety of purposes. For example, her SmellScape of Mexico City, developed in 2001 in collaboration with the Harvard graduate student teacher program, was a creative way to understand pollution. …

” ‘I walked around and [caught] in a playful manner the smells in different neighborhoods. The goal was reproducing the smell of pollution—the car exhaust, the refrigerator, the air conditioner … Then I gave the smells to people and asked them to articulate them which made them understand better what’s causing the pollution.’ …

“Tolaas collects the smell samples in a small glass tube called tennex. Then the container is sent to her research partners from International Flavors & Fragrances, an American perfumery corporation headquartered in New York City, which according to Tolaas is ‘one of a small number of companies which controls how the world smells and tastes.’…

“After analyzing the sample with a gas chromatograph, IFF sends Tolaas a formula that contains the fingerprint of the smell captured, describing all the subtle nuances in great detail. Using this data chart, Tolaas replicates the smell in her lab, combining some of the nearly 4,000 individual molecules she has at her disposal. The result, Tolaas explains, is as close as possible to the original smell.” More at Atlas Obscura, here.

I am going to start paying more attention to neighborhood scents. I know, for sure, we have pizza aroma and dry cleaning chemicals and the smell of trains grinding to a halt on metal tracks. But in spring, we also have lots of flower smells.

I may come back to this.

Photo: Atlas Obscura
Sissel Tolaas uses a nano-scale to measure the smell molecules.

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Here is an artist who addresses the sense of smell — and not only with lily-of-the-valley fragrance or the sea or brewing coffee.

Douglas Quenqua writes in the Science section of the NY Times that Belgian artist Peter De Cupere uses pretty much everything that has an odor.

“Peter De Cupere’s ‘Tree Virus’ sculpture wasn’t much to look at: a dead, black tree rooted in a craggy white ball suspended over a dirt pit, all of it covered by a plastic igloo. Built on a college campus in the Netherlands in 2008, the whole thing might have been leftover scenery from a Tim Burton film if it weren’t for the outrageous smell.

‘Inside the igloo, a heady mix of peppermint and black pepper saturated the air. It flooded the nose and stung the eyes. Most visitors cried; many ran away. Others seemed to enjoy it, laughing through the tears. Such is the strange power of olfactory art.

“ ‘When you walk into an installation with scent, you cannot hide. Your body starts to react,’ said Mr. De Cupere. … He is just one of several contemporary artists using odor to create art that delivers an intensely personal, emotional and sometimes physical experience. …

“Smell has an unfair advantage over the other senses when it comes to eliciting a response, researchers say. ‘There is a unique and directly intimate connection between where smell is processed in the brain and where memory is stored,” said Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown University and the author of The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell. …

“Just as Proust’s madeleines opened a floodgate to childhood memories, scents can recall different feelings depending on how a person first encountered them.”

More here.

Photo: Peter De Cupere
Peter De Cupere’s “Tree Virus” sculpture, which causes many visitors to cry.

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